“Favored of God”
There is an old joke I first heard in someone else’s sermon. In this joke, Jesus notices that there are a whole lot of people in heaven who he didn’t think should be there. So he visited Peter at the pearly gates to discover what was up. “It’s not my fault,” Peter explained. “I sent them away, but they went to your mother at the back gate, and she let them all in.”
I think you have to be a Protestant to fully appreciate this joke. Because in reality, we Protestants usually shy away from too much mention of Jesus’ mother. Here’s what today’s gospel lesson says about Mary.
In the sixth month [that is, in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with the baby to be called John the Baptizer], the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’
What do you think of this story? Do you believe that an actual non-human being named Gabriel appeared to Mary? I may have mentioned before that 77% of Americans believe in angels, more than twice as many people believe in angels than in ghosts. Of course you are here in church today; the poll found that 94% of those who attend church every week believe in angels. Especially women; more women than men think that angels exist. A 2011 poll done by CBS showed all this.
So, chances are that you believe an angel actually visited Mary.
If an angel *did* visit Mary, Gabriel would have been the logical one to have done so. Gabriel apparently is God’s go-to being for delivering important messages to people. You know, things that God wants them to know or to do. Gabriel, for instance, visited a Jewish man named Daniel while he was praying and gave him insight on what he should do. Today, Gabriel is visiting Mary, telling her that God would miraculously give her a son who is the Messiah.
But do you “believe in” Mary? When Gabriel, God’s messenger visited Mary, (he greeted her by calling her “favored one.” You might think that this was a traditional greeting by angels, something like, “Hello human, you are being visited by an angel, making you ‘most highly favored.’” Ut unh! Not even, “Hello human, you have been sent a message from God, making YOU most highly favored.” And, although Paul said that God made us the objects of this grace, Mary was the only one called “favored one” as her name (although St. Paul later calls the Christians in Ephesus “favored ones”).
Actually, this word that we translate “favored one” is often also translated “full of grace.” But the Greek verb tense in Mary’s case provides some additional information. The angel greeted Mary this way, “Hello, you person who has been given all possible grace, past, present, and future.” No wonder Mary was perplexed, and no wonder that Gabriel told Mary to not be afraid. Gabriel added that she had “found favor with God.”
I wonder what Mary had to do to have “found favor with God?” Surely Mary hadn’t earned the privilege of becoming the “God-bearer,” as she will be known throughout history. Mary was, in all probability, a young teenager at the time the angel Gabriel visited her. In all probability, Mary was a peasant, an insignificant life in the backwater town of Nazareth, a mere nobody engaged to a carpenter.
We know, don’t we, that this is exactly the kind of life that would “have found favor with God?” A more accomplished life might have confused us into thinking that Mary could possibly have done something to earn God’s favor, to earn God’s great grace.
Mary did know her science, though. She tried to give the angel a biology lesson, “Don’t you know, asexual angel,” she said (more or less), “that we humans have to have sexual relations before we can become pregnant?”
Well, Gabriel gave her a theology lesson in return. “Don’t you know, you mere human, that God can do anything?”
This is when Mary showed us the kind of mere nobody that she was, the kind of person God had selected through whom to be born into our world. She answered the messenger, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” So Mary was a very fast student of the holy.
We know this story; we sing this story every year at this time. Maybe we don’t think this story has much to do with us, directly. But I think this story is crucial to our lives. Somehow, even today, God’s messengers visit us and inspire us to do God’s will. Don’t we get ideas for good “out of the blue?” Don’t we get think of things we “ought” to do.
- Sometimes the ideas are mundane. For example, we might think, “I really should make dinner for my neighbor whose husband is ill.”
- Sometimes the ideas are outlandish. For example, we might think, “We really should tear down our church and build affordable housing right here on this holy spot.” Then, because we cannot see the angel that delivered up that inspiration, we discern to see whether the inspiration is of God.
Mary didn’t have to do that discernment, in part because the angel Gabriel slowed down enough so that Mary could see him, and Gabriel engaged in a dialogue with Mary. In the end, though, don’t we all need the “fear not” that accompanies God’s messages?
- “Fear not, for you have found favor with God. You will bear a son when you’re not even yet married.”
- “Fear not; you will start a new Sunday School class for children ages three to five even if there are not yet enough children here that age to fill the class.”
- “Fear not; you will start a new career, and to help you I have taken away your current comfortable job.”
- “Fear not; you have no money, but I will protect you.”
- Maybe even, “Fear not; you will build me some housing right here where you’re sitting.”From Mary we learn the only acceptable answer when we have discerned the message to be of God, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Help us, Lord, to “fear not, we who have been favored by God.”
 Daniel 9:21